February 6, 2023

When Jay Buhner Almost Became an Oriole

December 26, 2022 by · Leave a Comment 

If not for Seattle Mariners teammate Ken Griffey, Jr., Jay Buhner might have become an Oriole following the 1994 season.

Buhner, a 6-foot-3 outfielder, was known for his power, defensive skills and strong throwing arm.  From 1991 to 1993, he averaged 25 homers and 85 RBI. In the strike-shortened 1994 season, he slugged 21 homers and drove in 68 runs.

Although the 30-year-old free agent was paid $2.77 million in 1993, he felt underappreciated by the Mariners. Buhner and the Mariners entered the 1994 season in a financial standoff. Buhner asked for $4.7 million a year and the Mariners countered with a $4 million offer. The club upped the offer to three years for $10.5 million, but Buhner held out for $13.5 million.

The Orioles, who had lacked power-hitting outfielder for more than a decade, were extremely interested in Buhner. In 1994, left fielder Brady Anderson led the Oriole outfielders in home runs with 12, while center fielder Mike Deveraux contributed nine and right fielder Jeffrey Hammonds added eight.

Orioles general manager Roland Hemond convinced owner Peter Angelos to open his wallet in order to entice Buhner to Baltimore. The slugger visited Baltimore, toured hitter-friendly Camden Yards and met with the front office. The Orioles appeared to be the front-runners.

The club offered Buhner a four-year, $16 million contract.

The Mariners upped their offer to three years for $13.5 million after Ken Griffey Jr., one of the brightest young stars in the game, expressed his frustrations with the club’s lack of commitment to keeping its talent. He said Buhner was a key element in the team’s success. “If he goes, I go,” said the superstar.  Seattle took his threat seriously.

Buhner, however, appeared ready to sign with Baltimore on Dec. 15, 1994. Buhner said, “The deal is all but done, I’m just waiting on a call from my agent. My mind is pretty much made up. It’s time to move on.” He hadn’t heard from the Mariners in more than three weeks.

Seattle was resigned to losing the slugging outfielder.

On Dec. 20, 1994, Orioles general manager Roland Hemond, assistant general manager Frank Robinson and lawyer Russell Smouse cut short their attendance at the club’s annual Christmas party to phone Buhner’s lawyer Alan Hendricks. Talks went late into the night.

The following evening, Buhner announced he had signed a 3-year, $15.5 million contract, plus incentives up to $425,000 each season, with Seattle. The Mariners had sweeten the pot with another $2 million. The Orioles had increased their 4-year offer to $18 million.

Griffey Jr.’s intervention was a turning point.

“We think Junior showing the emotion he did indicated how important Jay was to Kenny on a personal level and as a teammate,” said Mariners president Chuck Armstrong.

After signing the pact, Buhner said, “Do I know how to pick my friends, or what?”

Griffey kept his part of the bargain as he signed a four-year extension with the Mariners for $34 million.

Previously rejected by free agent starting pitcher Danny Jackson and reliever Lee Smith, the loss of Buhner stung. But, the Orioles front office, as well as Baltimore Sun columnist Ken Rosenthal, attempted to assuage the impact by pointing to an abundance of outfielders in the farm system.

“We are very fortunate to have a lot of depth in the outfield,” said Hemond. The Orioles’ prospective outfielders included Sherman Obando, who according to assistant general manager Doug Melvin had “Jay Buhner-type power,” Alex Ochoa, Mark Smith, Curtis Goodwin, Damon Buford, Jack Voigt and Jim Wawruck.

Rosenthal wrote, “A four-year contract for Buhner would have been disastrous for all those talented young outfielders in the Orioles’ farm system. A $4.5 million annual salary would have created a payroll crisis.”

Returning to Seattle, Buhner put together three spectacular seasons from 1995 to 1997. He averaged 42 home runs and 122 RBI. He blasted 40 or more homers and drove in 100 or more runs for three consecutive seasons, a feat Mickey Mantle never achieved.

The Mariners won the AL West two of the three years.

So, what did the Orioles’ budding outfielders do in 1995 and beyond?

The seven prospects played 194 games for the Orioles. In 1995, games played included Goodwin (87), Smith (37), Buford (24), Obando (16) and Voigt (3). Smith also played 27 games in 1996. Ochoa never played for the Orioles and Wawruck never made it to the major leagues.

In 1995, the Orioles traded Voigt to Texas on May 16 for John Dettmer, a pitcher who never won a game in the majors. Ochoa and Buford were shipped to the Mets on July 28 for outfielder Bobby Bonilla and a minor leaguer. Goodwin was traded on Dec. 26 to Cincinnati for pitcher David Wells.

Obando was sent to Montreal on March 13, 1996, for outfielder Tony Tarasco. Smith was traded to San Diego on Jan. 9, 1997, for a minor leaguer.

It’s intriguing to think what Jay Buhner could have done wearing an Orioles uniform.

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